In my last post concerning Prof. Hanson’s pronouncements on religion in an article about the decline of Europe, I mentioned in passing that the truth actually matters. It’s worth elaborating on this point. Notice that nowhere in his article does Hanson explicitly claim that the Christian religion is true. Rather, he merely asserts that societies become ill in its absence. Let’s set aside for a moment the extremely dubious nature of this assertion, in view of the numerous historical incidents in which Christianity has been directly responsible for mass slaughter, gross exploitation, and other forms of social malaise that one doesn’t normally describe as “healthy.” Rather, let’s focus on his practice of putting the cart before the horse by claiming that Christianity is valuable as a tonic against social “illness” without first bothering to explain why he actually considers it to be true. Of course, the Christians aren’t the only ones guilty of this. Regardless of who is making such arguments, though, they’re all more or less beside the point.
Suppose, for example, that Christianity really is true. In that case, what use is it to ascertain whether it promotes healthy societies as well or not? After all, even if we do live in an “ill” society, in that case we will only have to endure it for a trivial amount of time. If, however, we annoy a God who, as the Christians assure us, has in common with humans the emotional behavioral trait we refer to as vengefulness, in spite of presumably having neither an amygdala, orbital cingulate cortex, or any other of the bits of gray matter responsible for expression of the trait in mere mortals, then, unless we don’t at least make a convincing show of pretending to do what he wants, we stand to burn in hell for quadrillions and quintillions of years to satisfy the requirements of divine justice. Under the circumstances, it would seem that the effects on society, one way or the other, are trivial to the point of irrelevance by comparison.
The essential question to answer, then, is not what effects Christianity, and all the other systems of belief in supernatural beings, for that matter, have on social wellness, but whether they are true. It seems to me that any reasonably intelligent person who is willing to use his gray matter as something other than a convenient stuffing for his skull and undertakes to investigate the matter with diligence and an open mind instead of simply following the usual path of least resistance and blindly accepting some hand-me-down opinion on the subject and then rationalizing it after the fact will conclude that they most certainly aren’t true. One might start by reading the recent books on the subject by the likes of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. However, the authors tend to go off on tangents of sanctimonious moralizing without troubling to explain to the reader what branch they happen to be sitting on to support the same that they haven’t already sawed off. Dawkins book is also blemished by the gross anti-Americanism that was fashionable among European intellectuals at the time it was published.
I personally prefer the Testament of the brilliant French cleric, Jean Meslier, who had no such ax to grind, and thoroughly demolished any basis for belief in supernatural beings a century and a quarter before Darwin’s Origin of Species. If your tastes run to poetry, try Edward Fitzgerald’s so-called “translation” of the Rubaiyat, which is actually a deconstruction of Islam, but serves as well for other religions. Add to that the wonderful works of Bart Ehrman, such as Jesus Interrupted, in case you seriously believe the Bible isn’t full of gross contradictions, and his Misquoting Jesus, which documents the literally tens of thousands of textual variations in the most authoritative manuscripts of the Bible if you really believe every jot, tittle, and typographical error therein is the inspired word of God, and you’ll have at least a fighting chance of coming to your senses in matters of religious belief. (By the way, any cleric worth his salt who’s been to a reputable seminary knows that what Ehrman says is true. They just don’t usually bother to tell their flocks, for obvious reasons.)
Do all of the above quickly, if possible. After all, what if the UFO fanciers are right, and we are soon to experience a visit by some race of extraterrestrials? Think of how embarrassing it will be for all of us if they discover that 90 percent of us still believe in imaginary beings with magical powers. We’ll never live it down.